I recently made a successful (so far) behavioral change. I’ll share that lower down, but because I got the idea for how to go about it from the book How to Change, by behavioral scientist Katy Milkman, I want to give a bit of background on Milkman’s book.
In it, she recounts a 2012 visit to Google that set a trajectory for her work.
Google offered all manner of perks meant to help employees save for retirement, exercise, eat better, learn new skills, stop smoking, and use social media in moderation. But the perks were surprisingly underutilized. Why, a Google VP wanted to know, weren’t Googlers taking advantage of benefits that cost the company a ton but were free for employees?
The VP asked Milkman a generative question: does the timing of those perks matter? That seems like a counterintuitive query. Shouldn’t benefits just be offered all the time to maximize opportunity? But Milkman told the VP she would have to learn more and get back to him. She returned with a clear answer: timing is incredibly important.
Rather than perceiving our lives as a continuous river of time, we construct our inner autobiographies more like a staircase, punctuated by important dates, dramatic events, and first experiences. Milkman likens it to reaching new chapters in a book, each one marking a shift in identity, like when you moved out of your childhood home, or perhaps when you became a parent yourself. New chapters — even minor ones — can be leveraged to improve our behaviors.
Milkman’s team found that college students were more likely to hit the gym at the beginning of a new year, at the beginning of a week, at the beginning of a semester, and after their own birthdays. They also saw that students set more self-improvement goals in January, on Mondays, after school breaks, and (again) after birthdays. They called it the “fresh start effect.” The idea is that the sense of a new beginning makes it easier to turn an identity page, to feel like a new person who has new habits, and who is less burdened by past failures.
You certainly wouldn’t intuit this from pessimistic New Year’s headlines. As a Forbes columnist put it: “So why do New Year’s resolutions fail?...Because January 1st is a pretty arbitrary day for half the population to start a new goal, it makes sense that many of us didn’t feel any real drive to start the goal on that particular day.”
But research by Milkman and others shows that is precisely wrong. January 1st isn’t just another day when it comes to behavioral change. A 2007 survey, which found that about 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail to take hold, feels disappointing — until you consider that it leaves 20 percent of goal-setters who made a successful change thanks to a flip of the calendar.
A 2019 study found that people were more motivated to work toward a personal goal when a calendar they were shown depicted whatever the current day was (either Sunday or Monday) as the first day of a new week.
At Penn, where Milkman works, students were more likely to sign up for email reminders about new habits if the nudges were offered on “the first day of spring” as opposed to “the third Thursday in March,” even though it was the same day. And when Milkman’s team sent postcards to employees at four universities urging them to start saving (or start saving more) for retirement, the cards that invited employees to launch the new behavior after their next birthday were the most effective.
At Google, results like these were translated into a “moments engine,” which seized on new chapters (a promotion, or an office move) to send behavioral nudges.
I’ve had a long-running habit of snacking late at night, and particularly on food that is neither very filling nor nutritious. It wasn’t doing anything good for me, but I was having trouble kicking the habit for more than a week at a time. After reading Milkman’s book, I decided to look out for an upcoming moment that would feel like a new chapter, and try to make a change then.
A few months later, I was moving to a new house, and I decided that would be my moment. I would allow myself to indulge without judgment up until the move, and then to leave that habit behind in the old house. And that’s exactly what I did.
I’ve been kind of stunned at how easy I’ve found it so far. I’ve been in the new place a few months now, and just haven’t felt that old compulsion. Conceptually, it reminded me of the stunning research on how a change of scenery helped soldiers returning from Vietnam to defy medical expectations and kick their heroin habits.
So if you’re looking to jumpstart a new behavior, consider starting by engineering a moment that feels like a break from the past. “This could be as simple as finding a new coffee shop to work in or a new gym,” Milkman writes. Even when we aren’t engineering a moment, she adds, “we should be looking for opportunities to capitalize on other life changes, too, to evaluate what matters most to us. Whether it’s an illness, a promotion, or a move to another town, it could offer just the disruption needed to turn your life around.”
So while it might seem arbitrary, don’t waste a flip of the calendar! That seems like a good piece of advice for this time of year.